There’s a famous English rhyme that British children use to help them remember the fate of Henry VIII’s six wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” That rhyme is now spreading far and wide thanks to SIX The Musical, a sassy, kick-ass, pop musical that opens using those same words.

Co-written by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow while they were still undergraduates at Cambridge University, SIX The Musical was the surprise hit of the 2017 Edinburgh Festival. It was quickly picked up by producers and before long had a sell-out season at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. It has since been presented in the US and Canada, and on a UK tour. It’s even being performed on several Norwegian Cruise Line ships. The Australian production has its official opening at the Sydney Opera House tomorrow, then tours to Melbourne and Adelaide, while a Broadway production opens in March.

The UK production of SIX The Musical. Photograph © Idil Sukan

The 80-minute show presents the six wives as pop princesses. Structured like a reality pop competition, each of them tells their story as they vie to become the leader of a girl-power pop group. The one who had the most miserable time at the hands of their royal husband wins.

The catchy score references the music of numerous pop divas including Beyoncé, Lily Allen, Ariana Grande and Adele, along with some German techno and a remix of Greensleeves, which Henry VIII is said to have written for Anne Boleyn.

Chatting to Limelight in the first week of January at the SOH, where she has just spent a week working with the Australian cast, 25-year-old Moss admits that the whole experience has been “so exciting but also overwhelming. Toby and I have just been trying to keep our head above water and figure out what is going on, whereas I’m feeling quite excited this year because we are a bit more used to what’s happening and ready to take advantage of the opportunities, and so excited about it,” she says.

Moss grew up in Ealing in west London and became interested in dance via her local ballet school. After high school she spent two years studying dance and musical theatre at Laine Theatre Arts, before going to Cambridge to study History, where she quickly made a name for herself as a director at the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society.

“By the end of my time at uni I thought ‘I want to be a director’,” she says. “My plan was to spend the next 10 years writing to any director who’d have me and say, ‘please can I come and assist you, you don’t have to pay me, I’ll pay you’.”

Moss met Marlow at Cambridge through the Cambridge Musical Theatre Society and they became good friends. In 2017, they decided to write the society’s first original musical to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. Mind you, with their final exams just around the corner, Moss admits that they tossed it off pretty quickly.

“We were writing SIX during our finals so our first writing retreat was a few days in March, and we did our finals in April and May. So, we didn’t put that much effort into the original SIX; it was like a fun break that we had during our revision. I was working so hard for my exams and was like, ‘I’ll just quickly write this song for Anne of Cleves and get it done so I can get back to my revision’ – which seems funny now.”

It was Marlow who came up with the idea of a show about the six wives of Henry VIII – which hit him during a poetry class in which they were comparing a William Blake poem to a modern art piece.

When Marlow suggested the concept to her, Moss says she remembers thinking that “it could be really bad. I could imagine lots of people writing a bad production of that. There’s so many parts of that that could be cheesy, a cliché, so I just sort of agreed to it assuming that I wouldn’t end up doing it,” she says with a laugh.

“It wasn’t that he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got  a great idea, do you want to do it with me?’ We had decided to write something together so we already knew that we wanted a show that had mostly parts for women, if not all parts for women, that were funny and meaty as opposed to the generic parts that women often get in musicals. And we knew that we wanted it to be pop music, and something that played around with the form of a musical – so not a narrative book musical.”

“So, we had all these ingredients there and also Toby very rightly  – because the place it was going was the Edinburgh Fringe –  said it had to be famous subject matter [to capture public attention]. So we had very specific criteria that we were talking about, and then he said ‘what about the six wives of Henry VIII?’ and I remember thinking ‘that could be horrible’. Even though I knew it was [going to be like] a pop concert, I couldn’t imagine it not being old-fashioned Tudory, I imagined it being a bit like the Oom-Pah-Pah song in Oliver! I love Oliver! but I just imagined everyone in these Tudor outfits and thinking ‘I have to make sure it’s not that, whatever we do’.”

The UK production of SIX. Photograph © Idil Sukan

After doing a little research they sat down and tossed around a few ideas around. “We loved the idea of Hans Holbein being involved somehow, but other than that we knew we wanted to do pop songs, a concert, and we assumed that each of them would sing a song as that would make sense as a format. On our first day of writing, we thought through what the structure would be and we thought that if we make it a competition to see who is going to be the leading lady of the group, that will give us a way of having them state their case so we don’t have to tell it in a narrative format,” says Moss.

One of their objectives was to show the parallels between women’s experience today and women’s experience 500 years ago. “So when we were reading about their lives and going through their stories, what often happened is that I would find things that chimed with my experience as a woman and it was like ‘yes, that feels relevant to today’, and we would take that element whether it was their story or the arc for the whole story, or a moment in their life, and that would be the thing that defined what kind of pop star they were,” says Moss.

As they worked, Marlow would sit at the piano and Moss at a laptop. “But it’s not that I do the lyrics and Toby does the music, it’s much more organic than that but it changes every time,” says Moss, who co-wrote the book, lyrics and music with Marlow, and who co-directed the show with Jamie Armitage.

The buzz in Edinburgh built very quickly. “It was funny actually because we so didn’t think it was a big deal that I wasn’t even there for most of Edinburgh,” says Moss with a laugh. “We did the rehearsal process [in Cambridge]. I was also the choreographer at the time of the student production – hilarious! – and so we did our preview in Cambridge just before we went to the Fringe and I was there for the first show and then it was like, ‘see you guys later’ because I was directing this thing back at university.”

“After the first couple of days I was getting phone calls. The first show was half sold, and then after that it was sold out the whole time and they were adding seats. Toby would call me every day and say ‘something crazy has happened’. He was there because he was performing in our other show [Hot Gay Time Machine] that we had done at the same time with our friend Zac [Ghazi-Torbati]. He’d say, ‘this person wants to talk to me’ and then Arlene Phillips [a choreographer of many West End shows, and a judge on TV talent shows like Strictly Come Dancing] came to see it and we were like, ‘oh this is crazy!’ and so it was pretty quick. The Fringe is a word of mouth thing and as soon as something takes hold, it takes off. But it was quite hard to judge if it was just some buzz and then it would all disappear. I’m still waiting for it all to disappear really!”

Producers soon started fronting up. Wendy Barnes saw it then send her husband Andy, quickly followed by others, many of whom were offering advice about how they thought the show could be developed and changed.

“Toby’s Dad had been in a band with the composer George Stiles [of Stiles and Drewe fame, whose musicals include Betty Blue Eyes, Soho Cinders and additional songs for Mary Poppins] and Toby had done his work experience with him and so Toby wrote to him asking for some advice,” says Moss.

Stiles saw the show when it returned to Cambridge and was so impressed by it that he sent Kenny Wax to see it the following day, the result being that Kenny Wax, Wendy and Andy Barnes, and George Stiles co-produced the professional production. “George Stiles is really like the fairy godmother of our lives,” says Moss.

They did two weeks of rewrites to introduce more witty Tudor references to the lyrics of some of the first songs they wrote before, but the show didn’t change much. “Apart from the obvious budget and amazing costumes and design, and all that sort of stuff, the essence of the writing and stuff is really pretty similar [to the show in Edinburgh],” says Moss.

The Australian cast of SIX: Chloé Zuel, Kala Gare, Loren Hunter, Kiana Daniele, Courtney Monsma and Vidya Makan. Photograph © James D. Morgan

When SIX tours, the performers will use local accents, so the Australian cast will retain their Australian accents. “That is very important to me,” says Moss. “In the UK we don’t make them do any uniform accent, we very much have them keep their own accent. And also the whole point of the show is not to reclaim the stories of these women from 500 years ago, but to make a point about women claiming their own space and using their own voice and having their own identity today. So we could have done a thing where we decided exactly what age they were at the time of the song, cast them at that age, and had someone speak in a Spanish accent for Catherine of Aragon, but that’s not what it’s about.”

“It’s funny, when people first think about it they say they have to have British accents but then they think about it for a second and realise they are pop stars and that they look nothing like the queen; it’s so much more important that you see them as themselves talking to you and connecting. I don’t even know what British accent we would do, do you know what I mean?”

With so many productions unfolding, Moss and her co-director can’t undertake them all, but they have a team of associates who they trust. Grace Taylor has directed the Australian production, with Moss lending her input over the course of a week. Moss and Armitage will, however, (not surprisingly) direct the Broadway production.

Asked about the Australian cast, which features Chloé Zuel, Kala Gare, Loren Hunter, Kiana Daniele, Courtney Monsma and Vidya Makan, Moss says: “They are amazing. It’s a really special cast, they have so much drive, I’m really excited for people to see them.”

As for the future, Moss says she and Marlow have been writing “some bits and bobs. We spent four months trying to write something which didn’t go very well but you know I think it’s that second album syndrome, it’s hard to write something else at the moment. But we are working on a bunch of things and we’ve got a lot of little projects ticking away which we’re very excited about,” she says.

A few months ago, they signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music who want to develop them as songwriters for contemporary artists and work with them on musical theatre projects.

“We’ve been writing in their studios writing,” says Moss. “Do you know Courtney Act? She is doing a theatre show that I think is also going to be an album this year, so we have written a couple of songs for that which is really exciting, she’s so cool, I love her.”

SIX The Musical plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 5, and is part of Sydney Festival; at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, April 23 – June 7; and at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 11 – 28